The credit line

I think it is time to get rid of authorship altogether, at least in research communication.

What is an author

Outside of academia, the definition of authorship is quite striaghtforward. As the OED puts it, an author is “the writer of a book or other work.” Things get a little complicated with ghost-writers (is a ghost-written book “by” the person who commissioned it or the person who actually composed it?). But on the whole, there isn’t much room for ambiguity. Authors are people who write.

Within academia, however, things are more complicated. There you can have ““authors” who don’t write anything”: and writers who aren’t authors.

This is because in academia, the writing is only part of a larger research process: articles and books report on research projects that take place in the laboratory or library but they are not the research project themselves. A single research project will often lead to a number of articles and (occasionally) books and the people who end up writing an individual article or book can represent only a small sub-set of the entire team that was responsible for working on the project as a whole. An individual article can involve the essential intellectual contributions of a far larger number of people than those actually responsible for drafting its text.

Why “authorship” matters

Despite this ambiguity, however, academics devote a lot of attention to determining authorship, and, especially, distinguishing between authorship and other forms of “contribution.”

This is because, being “an author” (as opposed to “a contributor”) carries with it real rewards. “Authorship” is the primary basis at universities for determining promotion, bonuses, and relative status. A researcher who receives a lot of authorship credits is going to do better (in terms of pay, rank, and position) than a researcher who is frequently acknowledged as a collaborator, even if that collaboration is as or more essential to the overall success of the project as a whole.

Authors who don’t write and writers who don’t author

Over the years, this disparity in reward has lead to some authorship scandals, paticularly in the medical sciences: people buying and selling “authorship” credit, authors who subsequently deny any responsibility for papers that are shown to be incorrect, researchers who do work being denied authorship credit.

It has also led to increasingly rigorous definitions of what authorship means in a research communication. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, for example, has come up with a fairly clear set of criteria for authorship credit:

The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

* Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

* Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

* Final approval of the version to be published; AND

* Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged—see Section II.A.3 below. These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work.

Disambiguating “credit” and “responsibility”

The problem with this definition, and indeed with the author/collaborator distinction as a whole, lies in that last sentence: “These authorship criteria are intended to reserve the status of authorship for those who deserve credit and can take responsibility for the work.” That is to say, this definition, like the author/collaborator distinction in the first place, is attempting to do too much: provide credit and identify responsibility. “Credit” on a modern research project in particular needs to be distributed far more widely than simply to those who can take responsibilty for its reports. From the people who secure the funding to the people who code the tools, modern research projects often make use of essential contributions from a large number of people—far more than ever end up drawing conclusions or reporting on results in writing. As long as the primary method of crediting research activity remains the by-line of the research article, it is essential that these people as well receive credit for their work similar to that received by the “authors” of the reports themselves.

This is particularly true for the growing class of adjunct and para-researchers in contemporary universities: these researchers, who are usually as qualified and well-trained as the principal investigators, can easily end up in a kind of researchers no man’s land: working on many research projects but too early in the pipeline and not high enough up in the hierarchy to receive authorship credit.

Indeed, in one sense, “authorship” is itself, just a contribution: projects need somebody to analyse and write up their results as surely as they need somebody to code their instruments. While authorship is the last step in the research cycle, it is not necessarily more important than all of the preceding steps, and, indeed, could not have taken place unless at least some of those preceding steps had occured: somebody needed to frame the project in such a way that it could be funded and ensure that the lab receives the resources it needs; somebody had to implement the protocols or design the software and routines; somebody had to acquire and process the data, and so on.

Challenging outdated assumptions

In fact, I would argue that our struggles about the definition of “authorship” in a research context are in fact evidence that the concept itself is outmoded. In the days when most projects were concevied of and carried out by a single person who then wrote up the reports by himself (pronoun being used advisedly), the idea of assigning credit for research to an “author” (in the traditional sense of “the writer of a book or other work”) made sense—though there are enough examples of lab assistants (usually women) not receiving credit for essential work even from those days to make one wonder.

Now that few projects are conceived of an executed in this way, however, the entire privileging of “authorship” (however defined) makes much less sense. It remains important to identify the people who bear intellectual responsibility for the argument and conclusions of a given research communication; but it does not seem more important to me to identify the people who bear intellectual responsibility for the particular set of conclusions as being more important than all those others without whose contributions the “authors” would have nothing to conclude about. In the modern research world, “authorship” (like “writing,” but also like “getting funding” or “developing the algorithm” or “doing the coding”) is really just one kind of contribution credit.

Changing the byline to the credit line

In my view, the way to address this problem is to get rid of the “author”/“contributor” distinction altogether. While it is important to continue to identify the people who have intellectual responsibility for the presentation and conclusions of a given piece of research communication, especially in cases of research fraud, it does not seem at all appropriate to me to maintain the vast distinction in credit that comes with the “author”/“contributor” distinction. If authors are really just a particular kind of contributor to the project as a whole, then it seems to me that we can acknowledge their contributions (and responsibility) just as easily in the contributor list as on the byline. Or, perhaps better said, that we could just as easily eliminate the distinction altogether and credit all contributors on the byline.

In fact, I think we should change our understanding of the “byline” altogether. If modern definitions of research authorship run into trouble because they attempt to use the byline for two things (assigning credit and identifying a particular kind of responsibility), an approach that saw the byline as simply the “credit line” and saw the attribution of specific credit as something that could be handled by a note would disambiguate these two functions and provide a far fairer (and more reliable) attribution of responsibility than the current system.

How would this work?

This is really two questions:

  1. how would projects assign credit and responsbility on papers (i.e. order of names, definitions of responsibilities)
  2. how could a “creditline” system replace a “byline” system in actual publications

For the first of these, I suspect the answer would, at least initially, depend on the researchers and disciplines. There are currently few standards and different disciplinary customs regarding the attribution and place of authors on the byline (e.g. alphabetical, from greatest to least responsibility, and so on). Likewise, there are no agreed upon terms for describing individual types of responsibility. Journals, such as Science, that include breakdowns of responsibility tend to do this in a free-form narrative.

I don’t see this changing under a credit-line system. Research teams would still be faced with the problem of ordering credit and it seems unlikely to me that the current places of highest prestige would change very much. Instead of first and last “author” we would now speak of “first and last contributor” as being the places of highest prestige, but the problem of who goes where would remain very much something individual research teams would still need to solve.

For the second question, how such a system could be implemented, I suspect not much is required. The difference between the current system and this proposal is not actually that great: we need definitions of authorship in academia because “authorship” is no longer about who writes things. All that is needed is for journals to begin inviting research projects to adopt a system in which the identities of all essential contributors are credited in the “creditline” and their contributions defined in a “responsibilities” note.

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